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I'm sick, and my friend had me buy store brand Zicam to help with it. Looking at the bottle after taking it, I thought the ingredients were written strangely. "Zincum Aceticum 2x", it says, when I would expect something more chemical sounding, like "Zinc Acetate 2 mg". Then I saw the "homeopathic" bullet point on the front. "Nooo, I've been suckered into homeopathic BS!"

But I thought I'd heard that zinc actually can help with the cold.

Update: This 2011 meta-study seems to confirm that it does:

Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people.

Does the particular type of zinc matter? (acetate vs gluconate, lozenge that dissolves in your mouth vs pill that you swallow)

The dilutions of 1/10 ("1x") "Zincum Gluconicum" or 1/100 ("2X") of "Zincum Aceticum" seems like there's still a lot of the active ingredients.

Is there a difference between this homeopathic zinc supplement and conventional zinc supplements? If not, why might someone sell it as homeopathy instead of real medicine?

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@Solus It's not an exact duplicate as there is the additional "homeopathic" part to this question. @endolith I've changed the question a bit to make it less subjective, we can only speculate about the "why", only the manufacturer really knows. –  Fabian Mar 14 '11 at 7:24
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@Fabian: True. I must have been asleep when I posted that. –  Mark L Mar 15 '11 at 6:40
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See also: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/5756/… –  nico Feb 3 '12 at 18:31
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

As to the question of "why" someone would sell a real, kinda-working treatment as a homeopathic remedy, it has to do with a loophole in the law. The 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which gave the FDA much of its current power, makes an exception for homeopathic preparations created according to the guidelines of the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States; such preparations do not need to meet the same standards the FDA requires for other products that claim to treat symptoms. According to the NCCAM:

Homeopathic remedies are regulated in the same manner as nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. However, because homeopathic products contain little or no active ingredients, they do not have to undergo the same safety and efficacy testing as prescription and new OTC drugs.
... The labels on the remedies must include at least one major indication (i.e., medical problem to be treated), a list of ingredients, the dilution, and safety instructions. In addition, if a homeopathic remedy claims to treat a serious disease such as cancer, it needs to be sold by prescription. Only products for self-limiting conditions (minor health problems like a cold or headache that go away on their own) can be sold without a prescription.

Note the loophole in the first sentence of the NCCAM quote - although most homeopathic remedies are chemically equivalent to their dilutant, homeopathic remedies at 1X or 2X still contain a substantial amount of the active ingredient despite being labeled as "homeopathic remedies".

Basically, by selling Zicam as a homeopathic remedy, the manufacturer can claim to directly treat some symptoms, without having to go through the expensive process of proving that it actually works to the FDA; further, they can also sell you something that has actual, measurable, active amounts of Zinc in it.

This is a wonderful thing for advertising, as normally they can only make vague claims about "supporting the immune system" (e.g Emergen-C) - and since there's a real amount of Zinc in the medicine, you'll actually feel something happening (like your sense of smell disappearing).

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"2X" means that it's been diluted 1-part-in-10 twice, so it has 1 part in 100 zinc. For a 1g pill that would be 10mg[*], i.e. about the same as your daily RDA (adult male should have 11mg/day).

[*] roughly - not taking into account the difference between volume and weight, of course.

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Ah, but it also has "Zincum Gluconicum 1X", which is only 1/100 dilution. Is the dilution relative to the pill weight? Or relative to some other arbitrary number? Does the type of zinc salt matter? Also, you're supposed to let them dissolve, not swallow them. –  endolith Mar 14 '11 at 21:13
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Yeah, so now I'm thinking they know it works, but don't want to go through the trouble of proving that it's safe, so they're using homeopathy's legal loophole to sell it? –  endolith Mar 16 '11 at 14:07
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@endolith Sounds right to me. –  Ustice Mar 16 '11 at 17:45
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@Cubbi: I recommend that you read this document from QuackWatch.org, which includes many credible references: quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/homeo.html (Homeopathy: The Ultimate Fake) –  Randolf Richardson Sep 20 '11 at 15:29
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NOTE: This answer was substantially factually incorrect, received 6 upvotes, and then was corrected by @endolith. The correction has changed the inevitable conclusion, and the original poster is no longer around to approve it. –  Oddthinking Apr 10 '13 at 5:46
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I remember reading in the last few weeks that zinc can indeed help make your cold episodes shorter. Here's one of those articles: Zinc May Help Fight Cold Symptoms After All

However, if it's a "homeopathic" version you would have to be fortunate to get any benefit other than placebo effect. Homeopathic medicine contains active ingredients diluted in water to the point that in many cases you get only water.

As an analogy think of a barrel full of white marbles and one single black marble, where the black one is a molecule of the active ingredient and the white ones are molecules of water. If you scoop one little bottle out of that barrel, what are the chances that you will get the black marble? Oh, and by the way, homeopathy considers that the more diluted it is, the more potent the remedy. Go figure.

You may still get some benefit out of this potion if it happens to be "enriched" or "fortified" with vitamins or other things like that. But these additives are not part of the central idea of homeopathy.

I'd say that if you need to take extra zinc, you should go with the non-homeopathic supplements.

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While researching this subject, I found an article that gives a real dosage of zinc in Zicam in mg. "A daily dosage of (6) six Zicam lozenges delivers 80 mg of elemental zinc." Meaning that the dosage is about 13.3 mg per lozenge. resource4defectivedrugs.com/topics/zicam.html –  Ustice Mar 16 '11 at 17:47
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Regarding the question of zinc and the common cold: the evidence clearly says "maybe." There are some studies which show effect and an approximately equal set showing none. (see: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/ especially "The common cold" section with cites).

One important point to note is that Zinc cold treatments are implicated in temporary to permanent loss of smell. I believe the intranasal (spray) ones are of concern. Zicam particularly was in court over this IIRC.

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The link in the question is a meta-study from 2011 and shows that it's effective. –  endolith Mar 17 '11 at 18:08
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ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17682990?dopt=Abstract This one (2007) uses nearly identical search criteria and identifies a similar number of papers from the same databases... –  horatio Mar 17 '11 at 18:23
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